Today, Carnival in Trinidad represents a beautiful mixture of upbeat music, vibrant costume, and joyful celebration, all rooted in the history and culture of the region. Trinidad Carnival is considered to be one of the best Carnivals in the world, open to anyone who wishes to attend. However, Carnival was not always as open and free as we now know it to be.
From 1498 up until 1776, Trinidad was one of the many colonies of the old Spanish Empire. In the late 18th century, King Carlos III of Spain declared two Cédulas, one in 1776, and a second in 1783, the latter of which being an edict of “28 articles governing several forms of land grants to encourage population growth, naturalisation of inhabitants, taxation, armament of slave owners, the duty and function of a militia to protect the island, and merchant and trade issues”. It allowed for mass immigration of people, primarily from the French Antilles, namely Grenada, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and Dominica, to settle on the island. Any free person of the Roman Catholic faith who was willing to swear allegiance to the Spanish was granted the right to move to the island, with promises of several acres of land given to said immigrants, depending on their race, social class, and number of slaves they owned. This immigration policy brought Trinidad’s population from about 1000 in 1773 to 18,627 by 1797, which laid the foundation for the growth of the island to what it is today. In 1797, the British invaded Trinidad and colonised it, and proceeded to take over in the same manner as they did with Jamaica and Barbados.
Carnival is a Lenten celebration, and during Lent in the years 1783 to 1838, it was celebrated exclusively by the white upper class; coloureds (gens de couleur libres) and Africans, free or not, were all forbidden from engaging in Carnival-related activities. The emancipation of enslaved Africans in 1838 put an end to this, allowing all people to celebrate Carnival in whichever way they saw fit.
Celebrations in the pre-emancipation era were a lot different to what we now recognise as Trinidad Carnival. White people dressed up as negues jadin (nègres jardin, French for garden negroes) and mulâtresses (enslaved women with one Black parent and one white one) to re-enact practices maintained during slavery – when cane in the plantations caught alight, causing a fire to break out, the enslaved were rounded up by the plantation owners and were forced into the danger area to collect all the cane surrounding the fire to prevent its loss. This re-enactment is known as Cannes Brûlées, meaning burnt canes in French. After emancipation, the Afro-Creole population, with their regained freedom, effectively reclaimed the celebration, which was clearly a glorification of domination of the subjugated enslaved. It was renamed Canboulay; originally observed on August 1st (commemorating emancipation) for its first ten years before being moved to the pre-Lenten period, Canboulay involved revellers carrying burning sugar canes, engaging in masquerade dances, and following numerous other festive activities.